WATCH: Biden warns Russia cannot act with impunity

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration announced Thursday that the United States was expelling 10 Russian diplomats and imposing sanctions on dozens of companies and others, holding the Kremlin responsible for interference in the presidential election. of last year and the hacking of federal agencies.

Watch Biden’s remarks in the player above.

The sweeping measures are intended to punish Russia for actions that US officials say undermine the core of US democracy and to deter future acts by imposing economic costs on Moscow, including targeting its ability to borrow money. money. The sanctions will certainly escalate tensions with Russia, which has promised a response, even as President Joe Biden has said the administration could have taken even more punitive action but chose not to do so in the interest of the maintaining stability.

“We cannot allow a foreign power to interfere in our democratic process with impunity,” Biden said at the White House.

The sanctions against six Russian companies that support the country’s cyber efforts represent the first retaliatory measures against the Kremlin for the hack known as the SolarWinds breach, with the United States explicitly linking the intrusion to SVR, a security agency. Russian intelligence. While such intelligence-gathering missions are not uncommon, officials said they were determined to respond because of the wide scope of the operation and the high cost of the intrusion for private companies.

The United States also announced, under the same executive order, sanctions against 32 individuals and entities accused of attempting to interfere in last year’s presidential election, including by broadcasting misinformation. US officials alleged in a declassified report last month that Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized influence operations to help Donald Trump in his unsuccessful bid for re-election as president, although there is no evidence whether Russia or anyone else changed their vote.

The actions, announced by the administration for weeks, signal a tougher line against Putin, whom Trump was reluctant to criticize even as his administration pursued sanctions against Moscow. It is the administration’s second major foreign policy move in two days, following the announcement of a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. So far, Biden has largely focused on the coronavirus pandemic and the economy during his first few months in office.

Biden said Thursday that when he briefed Putin a few days earlier on the upcoming steps — which included expelling the 10 diplomats, some of whom were Russian intelligence officials — he told the Russian leader “we would have could have gone further but chose not to.

“We want,” he said, “a stable and predictable relationship.”

Even so, Russian officials have spoken of a swift response, with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warning that “a series of retaliatory measures will come as soon as possible”.

Other US measures are also expected, although the administration is not expected to announce them. Officials have indicated that their response to Russia will be both visible and invisible.

The sanctions announced Thursday are the latest in a series of actions that successive presidential administrations have taken to counter Russian behavior seen as antagonistic. It is unclear whether the new US actions will result in a change in behavior, especially since past actions by the United States – Trump and Barack Obama have expelled individual diplomats during their presidencies – have not failed to stop Russian piracy.

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But experts suggest this latest round, while not guaranteed to curb cyberattacks, may have more resonance because of its financial impact: The order makes it harder for Russia to borrow money. money by prohibiting US banks from buying Russian bonds directly from the Russian Central Bank. , Russian National Wealth Fund and Ministry of Finance. This could complicate Russian efforts to raise capital and entice companies to do business in Russia.

The impact of sanctions and the willingness of the United States to impose costs will be weighed by Putin as he assesses his next steps, although he is unlikely to make a “180” pivot in his behavior, said Daniel Fried, former assistant secretary of state. for European and Eurasian affairs.

“The question is how to repel Putin’s aggression, while keeping communication channels open and continuing to cooperate with Russia in areas of mutual interest,” Fried said. “And it seems to me that the Biden administration has done a pretty good job of framing the relationship in exactly that way.”

Eric Lorber, a former Treasury Department official, said the administration is “surely trying to balance the pressure on Russia, pushing it back on Russia, while not engaging in full-fledged economic warfare.” .

The White House did not impose sanctions linked to separate reports that Russia encouraged the Taliban to attack US and allied troops in Afghanistan, saying instead that Biden was using diplomatic, military and intelligence channels to respond. .

Reports of alleged “bounties” surfaced last year, with the Trump administration being criticized for not raising the issue directly with Russia. Administration officials said Thursday they have only low to moderate confidence in the information, in part because of how the information was obtained.

Among the companies sanctioned are websites that US officials say operate as fronts for Russian intelligence agencies and disseminate disinformation, including articles alleging widespread voter fraud in 2020. Those targeted include Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian and Ukrainian political consultant who worked with the former Trump. campaign chairman Paul Manafort and who was indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

The Treasury Department said Thursday that Kilimnik provided campaign polling data and strategy to Russian intelligence. Mueller’s office said it was unable to determine what Kilimnik did with the polling data after obtaining it from the Trump campaign.

Also on the sanctions list were the Kremlin’s first deputy chief of staff, Alexei Gromov, several people linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Russian president, nicknamed “Putin’s chief” for his functions in the Kremlin, and several shell companies according to the United States. help Prigozhin escape the sanctions imposed earlier.

Biden informed Putin that the sanctions were coming earlier this week. But administration officials have made clear in their contacts with the Russian side that they hope to avoid a “downward spiral” in relations, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity after announcement of sanctions.

The two leaders had a tense second call this week in which Biden told Putin to “defuse tensions” following a Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border, and said the United States “would act firmly to defend their national interests” regarding Russian intrusions and electoral interference.

In a TV interview last month, Biden said “yes” when asked if he thought Putin was a “killer.” He said the days of the US “rolling” to Putin were over. Putin then recalled his ambassador to the United States and highlighted America’s history of slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans and the atomic bombing of Japan during World War II.

US officials are still grappling with the aftermath of the SolarWinds intrusion, which affected agencies including the Treasury, Justice, Energy and Homeland Security departments, and are still assessing what information may have be stolen. The breach revealed vulnerabilities in the private supply chain as well as weaknesses in the federal government’s own cyber defenses.

Associated Press writer Zeke Miller in Washington, Vladimir Isachenkov and Daria Litvinova in Moscow, and AP diplomatic writer Matthew Lee in Kabul contributed.

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